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Guest Writer

Poetry is dead
by Steven C. Benjamin

“I have to submit to much in order to pacify the touchy tribe of poets.”
– Horace

hat is poetry?

Today's postmodern approach to teaching what should be creative subjects has teachers asking students for a definition – often on the first or second day of class.

In much the same way, I was once asked for a similar definition. My teacher, like any other under the enchantment of self-perceived profundity, asked: "What is science fiction?" Then he glanced casually over a roomful of students for the few brave or conceited enough to offer an answer.

What did that teach us? What were we expected to learn? That dictionaries are no longer politically correct? That an opinion is never justified? That words mean nothing and therefore definitions are pointless pursuits for the deluded masses?

The answers, of course, differed. I suppose we were meant to find this shocking. When the question becomes "What is poetry?" the result is the same and the answers will differ.

This isn't a profound or even unusual phenomenon. If I asked "What is a table?" without allowing reference to a dictionary, the answers would still differ. And yet, people know where to find tables in a department store, just as they can find poetry in a bookstore. So why don't we argue over the definition of tables? Offer classes? Confer degrees? Obviously, there must be something more.

"Poetry," as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary:

  1. The art or work of a poet.
  2. a. Poems regarded as forming a division of literature. b. The poetic works of a given author, group, nation or kind.
  3. A piece of literature written in meter; verse.
  4. Prose that resembles a poem in some respect, as form or sound.
  5. The essence of or characteristic quality possessed by a poem.
  6. The quality of a poem, as possessed by an object, act or experience:
    the poetry of her dance movements.

"Poet," as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary:

  1. A writer of poems.
  2. One who is esp. gifted in the perception and expression of the beautiful or lyrical.

"Poem," as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary:

  1. A composition designed to convey a vivid and imaginative sense of experience, characterized by the use of condensed language chosen for its sound and suggestive power as well as its meaning, and by the use of such literary techniques as structured meter, natural cadences, rhyme or metaphor.
  2. A composition in verse rather than in prose.
  3. A literary composition written with an intensity or beauty of language more characteristic of poetry than of prose: a prose poem.
  4. A creation, object or experience thought to embody the lyrical beauty or structural perfection characteristic of poetry.

Definitions can be fun. The deconstructionists loved them.

The word in question is "poetry." Why don't teachers ask us to define "poet," or even "poem," which, as our research here shows, is very much more to the point? Perhaps they fear the more courageous of us will insert ourselves into the blank followed by the big question mark. Perhaps it is only that they are not brave enough to use their own names. Or, maybe, the point is not to get to the point. This certainly wouldn't contradict my experience with the educational system.

The question arises, rather early on, of which word to chase.

That answer, of course, is hampered by precisely what we're looking for (thus, our biggest flaw is flaunted in the face of science, and science is powerless to complain).

Is there a difference in whether we pursue "poetry," "poem" or "poet"? I think the difference is vast, though that is not to say similar flaws won't be found in each.

We see here that poetry depends on at least one of two things: a poem or poet (references to qualities or characteristics still require a model poem/poet as subject).

A poet implies a single entity capable of acting on its own (both options conform to the concept of "person," though they are careful not to exclude humans or other stupid animals). My aim is not at those who name themselves, but at objects that get named.

"Poem" implies specificity (a single work, a particular utterance), while "poetry" is general, all encompassing, entirely nonexclusive; overall a dangerous thing, however altruistic it seems.

Why does the word bother me so?

It is meaningless, valueless, cheaply said and often misheard, but of what use are complaints? "Poetry," in essence, is a dead word. The perpetrators of this crime populate the world over. The death of poetry constitutes a global conspiracy played out so perfectly that the criminals still don't know who they are (many now are dead, so who can say their ignorance is a fact?).

Pablo Neruda, pompous bouquet man of the southern "Latin" regions aided the cause. "Poetry is an act of peace," Neruda says, gallantry sweaty on his tongue. "Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread."

Neruda is of the Spanish breed that still believes all bread is made with flour.

All poetry is experimental poetry.
– Wallace Stevens

"The proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure."
    – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Of course, one wonders what is all that which we find in meter, rhyme, or especially free verse, that so often constitutes, describes, even communicates something very much the antecedent of pleasure? It is apparently not poetry for Coleridge.

And if poetry does not designate an act of peace (was Pound or Sexton or Bukowski after peace? Or are they all just Robert Frost in disguise?), poetry must be a Brady Bunch episode when Marsha and Jan are forced to get along.

"Can't we all just get along?" Ah yes, poetry.

“The best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can.”
– Matthew Arnold

Delight is an easy thing. And here is where the word flails.

Food is poetry. The dry earth, when it delights, is poetry. A redneck's pickup is poetry. The setting sun: poetry. The guy I can't stand, when delighting another: poetry.

The subjective politically correct stance leaves us with a word that, because it means everything, is now left to mean nothing at all.

What is a person saying when describing a thing as poetry? The word is redundant. He could point at an object and grunt, and it might yet tell us more. If everything is poetry, then using the word in language is equivalent to saying everything is everything.

The girl is poetry. The girl is a thing. The girl is something. The girl exists. Ultimately, why not save time? The girl. Urgh (points finger).

And yet this is where our postmodern talk treads. Nothing means anything and language is mute. Still, we humans on occasion do enjoy, even seem to need, communication. And what better to do this with than words? While it is certainly in our best interest to question (unless we prefer to avoid
complication), entirely subjective definitions incapacitate communication.

When the speaker utters a word – "table" – it is in that speaker's interest for the listener to share a commonality in definition. Some part of that definition must surpass the entirely subjective. A table need not have four legs, but a means of sustaining itself can be assumed so long as the word
is not preceded with "broken," etc.

Now, when one utters "poetry" there is no ground left to stand on – never mind how many legs the poem or poet wears. The word is left without definition thanks to the profundity of postmodern educators.

Better to say "scribblings." At least then one can assume it is written. Or "rantings" so that some tone or intention is implied. In poetry, however, no such thing exists.

When I poke fun at the word in passing, it is not meant to carry judgment. Such a purpose is beyond me since the term has become weightless.

Poetry is dead, and poetry is what killed it.

See more from Steven in our archives.

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